Inside the Capitol

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

9-30 Another Take on T.B. Catron

WED, 9-30-09

No New Mexican has had a greater effect on this state than Thomas Benton Catron. No discussion of Spanish or Mexican land grants is complete without his mention. Almost everything written about Billy the Kid casts T.B. Catron as the evil manipulator behind the group Billy was fighting.
Catron was at one time the biggest landowner in the United States. He was a force behind our quest for statehood and one of our first two U.S. senators. He also was credited with forming the Santa Fe Ring and being its leader for decades.
But little has been written about Catron or the Santa Fe Ring. I have been told it is because people are afraid of the subject. I have been privileged to know two generations of Catrons. They are as nice as people get so I'm not sure whom there is to fear.
Historian Victor Westphall made the effort in 1973. He carefully researched records from Catron's time and produced a book so different from the oral history people hear that many suspect Westphall wrote it to please the Catron family and friends.
Westphall brings up the charge himself in the preface to his book "Thomas Benton Catron and His Era" and emphatically denies it. He contends that factual research contradicts the oral history.
Catron was born in Missouri in 1840. After graduating from the University of Missouri, he fought for the South in the Civil War. Following the war, he studied law for a year, then followed friends to New Mexico.
His father provided him with two wagons of flour, which Catron sold, along with the wagons and mules, when he arrived in Santa Fe. With the $10,000 from that sale, Catron began a lifetime of buying land and lending money.
Many New Mexico natives had land but no money. Catron found that when he took land as collateral, he often ended up with the property. His big mistake came when he accepted undivided land interests from community land grants. That collateral was worthless unless he owned the entire land grant.
So he began the tedious process of trying to buy up entire land grants. The land title process was tricky. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, at the end of the Mexican-American War, recognized Spanish and Mexican land grants upon submission of evidence of title. Not all granting authorities were equal so most titles were held up.
Catron became the leading expert on the strength of titles but it also made him the focus of problems the natives had in keeping their land. He also was accused of illegal maneuvers and misrepresentations, especially in consolidating land grants.
Westphall writes off Catron's involvement in the Lincoln County War as minimal because he wouldn't have had time for it. But he writes of Catron loaning money to Murphy, Dolan and Riley and eventually taking over their enterprise and sending his brother-in-law to take it over.
During his political life in New Mexico, Catron served as a district attorney, state attorney general, U.S. attorney, member of the territorial legislature, delegate to Congress, mayor of Santa Fe and U.S. senator.
Catron was an avid Republican. He is credited with organizing the Republican Party in New Mexico. Republicans were being elected here before Catron arrived in 1866 but he was willing to do the work to develop a strong organization that controlled most elements of New Mexico politics.
Westphall suggests that the organization referred to as the Santa Fe Ring never existed. It actually was the Republican Party of New Mexico. And since Catron did most of the work of keeping the Party together, he was credited with heading the Ring.
Westphall also suggests that Catron may have been blamed for a half century of political turmoil in New Mexico because he wasn't a likable guy. He was blunt, blustery and overly ambitious.
In his final two years of a long life, Catron's more genial nature shone through and that seems to be the legacy he passed down to future generations.



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